TAMPA — Start with the gold mohawk, possible proof the comparison has gone to his head. Or the No. 7 pendent dangling from a chain around his neck, a number worn during their award-winning football careers in the Southeastern Conference.
Maybe it’s because Mike Edwards’ game is as sweet as honey. The rookie out of Kentucky is so versatile that he can be a ball-hawking safety in centerfield on one play or a human wrecking ball who can destroy a ballcarrier on the next.
But it’s no coincidence that Edwards patterns his look and his play after Tyrann Mathieu, the former LSU star who was drafted by Bruce Arians with the Arizona Cardinals.
“Yeah, I mean, it started in high school,’’ Edwards said of his likeness to Mathieu. “People started calling me (Honey Badger, Mathieu’s nickname), and it just carried over.
“I looked up to him growing up. We’re two different players, but we’ve got some similarities.’’
Like Mathieu, Edwards was drafted in the third round. If anything, he might’ve been underdrafted after recording 318 tackles, 10 interceptions and two touchdowns in his four seasons. He was a leader of a defense that led the Wildcats to a 10-3 record last year, their most wins and highest Associated Press poll finish (12th) since 1977.
In Week 2, Edwards helped Kentucky break a 31-game losing streak to Florida, a 27-16 win in Gainesville. Defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale sensed something different about Edwards after pregame warmups.
“There was a lot of talking on the field,’’ he said. “Mike went into the locker room fired up like I never ever saw before. I didn’t talk to the defensive backs that day. I decided when he’s fired up like that, it’s going to be a hell of a game. Then he went out and played his butt off.’’
Because Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who also coached Mathieu in Arizona, relies heavily on the safety position, Edwards already is the only one of three rookie defensive backs you can pencil into the starting lineup. Central Michigan cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting could win the job at nickel corner, and fellow second-round pick Jamel Dean out of Auburn is competing at both outside cornerback spots.
“The safeties in Todd’s (scheme) basically run the defense, and they have to call out the fronts, and they have to play multiple positions,’’ said safeties coach Nick Rapone, a member of Arians’ staff in Arizona. “We thought (Edwards) had the ability to do everything we wanted. First of all, he’s physical. Second of all, he can blitz. Third of all, he can cover. Fourth of all, to the best of our knowledge, he is cerebral. And the safety in this scheme has to be cerebral. So that’s what we saw, all those qualities in him.’’
At 5 feet 10, 205 pounds, Edwards is bigger than the 5-9, 174-pound Mathieu, who was drafted in 2013 and played five seasons with the Cardinals before spending last year with the Texans, then signing this offseason with the Chiefs.
It’s not lost on Edwards that he’s now playing the same position Mathieu did under Bowles in Arizona.
“I’ve been watching film all the way back to Arizona,’’ Edwards, 23, said. “Like I said, Tyrann Mathieu was there, and even (Patrick Peterson, another star defensive back out of LSU) was there. And when (Bowles) was with the Jets, I watched him there. Jamal Adams (also out of LSU) and all them. They had some great safeties.’’
Edwards could be next.
The Honey Badger is one of the most fearless animals on the planet, and Edwards’ aggressive style has been unrelenting in practice. Since training camp began, he has tormented Jameis Winston and the Bucs’ other quarterbacks.
On Monday, Edwards jumped a route by rookie receiver Spencer Schnell, stepped in front of Ryan Griffin’s pass for his second interception of the day and high stepped for a touchdown, setting off a roller-coaster end-zone celebration by the defense.
On Friday, Winston had driven the offense from its own 20 across midfield and had 21 seconds with no timeouts, but Edwards made what would’ve amounted to a game-saving INT.
“The best players, the greatest players, want to be the person to be in position to make a play,’’ Clinkscale said. “Mike was always trying to find a way to get the ball. He wanted to be the guy making the play in a critical situation.’’
With safety Justin Evans still unable to practice with a foot injury, the Bucs are going to have rely on some young defensive backs. At 24, former Gator Vernon Hargreaves, a 2016 first-round pick, is one of the old men of the group. More telling, six of Tampa Bay’s defensive backs played in the SEC, just like Mathieu.
“He really does (remind me of him), he has those instincts,’’ Arians said of Edwards. “I think he is a couple tackles away from being the all-time leading tackler in Kentucky history. That (includes) some pretty good players. We know he can tackle, but his ball skills really amaze me.”
Bowles is more sober in his assessment. He notes that Mathieu played a lot of cornerback at while Edwards did not.
“Tyrann has established himself in the league, and he’s a great player,’’ Bowles said. “I don’t want to put Mike in that category yet after (a few) days in pads. I would hold the horses on that until he plays a lot more.
“We liked him coming out. He did a lot of good things on film we saw, and he’s doing them in practice in the early stages, but he’s got a lot to learn.’’